Arkansas farmer on state Plant Board helped found group now suing it

Great Seal of Arkansas in a court room in Washington County. Thursday, June 21, 2018,

Travis H. Senter, a new member of the state Plant Board, helped create a nonprofit group of farmers that's now suing the state, claiming that the board's composition is illegal.

Senter, 43, an Osceola farmer, said Thursday that he was unaware of the lawsuit filed by FarmVoice Inc. in August, about a month before his appointment to the Plant Board by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Senter is listed as a FarmVoice director on incorporation papers filed in 2020 with the secretary of state.

"I was removed as a director in September, I think," Senter said by telephone, clarifying a few minutes later that he stepped down on his own, just before his selection by the governor, and wasn't asked by anyone to take that action.

Senter said he didn't talk to the governor's office about his relationship with FarmVoice and the governor's office didn't bring up the matter.

Hutchinson's office hasn't responded to requests for comment.

Matthew Marsh of Little Rock, Plant Board chairman and a Hutchinson appointee to represent rice growers, said Thursday that he wasn't aware of Senter's role as a founder of FarmVoice. "It seems like it would be [a potential conflict of interest]. If he resigned [as a director], maybe by doing that, he's trying to take himself away from FarmVoice and just represent the Plant Board, but that, at some point, might present a conflict, being a founding member."

The board is next scheduled to meet March 3.

FarmVoice and three farmers -- Timothy Pirani and Adam Henard, both of Wilson (Mississippi County), and Jared Hopper of Blytheville -- sued the Plant Board last summer, alleging that a 2021 law revamping the selection of Plant Board members is unconstitutional. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Morgan E. "Chip" Welch has set a hearing for May 4 to consider the merits of the lawsuit (60CV-21-5113).

The new law arose from an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling in May 2021 that said the Arkansas General Assembly had illegally delegated its appointment powers in 1917 when it passed a law establishing the Plant Board and allowing private agricultural trade groups to appoint representatives directly to the board. (With changes to the original law over the decades, the Plant Board ultimately grew to nine members representing trade groups and seven direct appointments by the governor. Two other members, representing the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, don't have voting privileges.)

The Supreme Court ruling resulted in the nine trade-group representatives being removed from the board.

Grant Ballard, a Little Rock attorney, filed the lawsuit that resulted in the Supreme Court ruling as well as FarmVoice's lawsuit challenging the 2021 law. Ballard's current lawsuit doesn't name individual Plant Board members as defendants. He declined to comment, saying he didn't know the extent of Senter's involvement with FarmVoice.

The 2021 law allows the trade groups to submit names of at least two members to the governor for consideration. The governor then would select one member for each group to the Plant Board, with those selections subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

The latest lawsuit said the new law remains unconstitutional, because the trade groups still have such a large say in Plant Board appointments.

Hutchinson in September announced 14 appointments to the Plant Board, including Senter's. The new law also increased the board's membership to 19.

Trade groups represented on the Plant Board are those for seed growers and seed dealers, aerial applicators, pest controllers, pesticide manufacturers, foresters, horticulturalists, oil marketers and the green industry. The Plant Board positions for the oil marketer and seed grower associations remain vacant.

Senter is one of two direct appointees of the governor to represent growers of corn, cotton, peanuts, rice, sorghum, soybeans, turf or wheat. Previous law described those positions as representing farmers at-large.

Asked if he supports the FarmVoice lawsuit, he said, "I'm not sure. I don't even know what lawsuit you are referring to."

Senter said he was familiar with the lawsuit resulting in the Supreme Court ruling but not with the one filed by FarmVoice, noting that the latter was filed during a busy harvest. He said he didn't recall, as a director, voting on whether to file the lawsuit.

Asked why he resigned as a FarmVoice director, Senter said, "My appointment to the Plant Board is to serve farmers at-large, and I felt like it was in my best interest to not serve two particular masters, I guess you would say."

Senter later said he probably shouldn't have used the term "two masters."

"I guess you could say, wouldn't say, 'two masters,' but as a person on the Plant Board, you need to be impartial to things," he said. "I want to make sure I serve the Plant Board to the best of my ability."

Because he wasn't aware of the FarmVoice lawsuit, he doesn't have a conflict of interest, Senter said.

FarmVoice was formed, at least in part, with the rise in usage of the dicamba herbicide, which has been linked to thousands of complaints of damage to crops and vegetation in nearly two dozen soybean-producing states, including some 1,600 complaints in Arkansas since 2016. Primarily through social media, FarmVoice has favored a longer spray season for dicamba since at least 2019. The incorporation papers listing Senter as a director were filed in August 2020.

Senter took issue with the idea that FarmVoice was formed because of dicamba and pesticide regulations that go before the Plant Board.

"I think it's irrelevant to dicamba," Senter said. "I think farmers needed a voice for many issues, and I think FarmVoice was formed for that. I think it needs to be reported that there are people on the Plant Board that are members of Farm Bureau and other groups as well, so I don't think it's a problem, whether it be a lawsuit over dicamba or anything else that could be done by any other group as well." (Other groups, including Arkansas Farm Bureau, haven't joined the FarmVoice lawsuit or filed their own lawsuits against the Plant Board.)

Asked if he is still a member of FarmVoice, Senter said, "A member as in donating to FarmVoice, yes, I guess you could consider me a member."

"Travis Senter is as straight-up as you get," said Perry Galloway, a Woodruff County farmer who helped found FarmVoice. Galloway said he didn't see a conflict of interest on Senter's part, noting that Senter represents farmers not trade groups. "If you want to talk about bias, the basis of the lawsuit is private industry nominating two people to the governor and the governor has to pick one. That's the basis of the lawsuit."

Senter, who farms 7,5oo acres of cotton, soybeans, rice and corn, is the third generation in his family to farm.

All of the acreage is in Mississippi County, the source of most dicamba complaints filed with the Plant Board since 2016. The board has some 600 pesticide complaints pending from 2017-21, including some alleged violations that are eligible for maximum $25,000 fines.

Senter said he sprays dicamba on his dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans, and abides by any restrictions placed on its usage, including adhering to any buffers near state agriculture research stations. He said he farms about 300 acres adjacent to the UA Division of Agriculture's Northeast Research and Extension Center at Keiser (Mississippi County). The research station has reported dicamba damage to its research plots about every year since dicamba's usage increased in 2016.

Dicamba's use as an over-the-top herbicide increased as weeds grew a tolerance to other herbicides, including glyphosate, or Roundup. Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, genetically modified soybeans and cotton to be tolerant to dicamba, which can damage other crops, fruit trees and native vegetation.

"It's an extremely touchy subject," Senter said of dicamba's usage. "I see both sides to it. It does have its good and bad sides. I don't want to damage [others' crops] as much as anybody. From a farmer's standpoint, I hope technology [for a new herbicide] comes along so that dicamba is out. If it were taken away today, I think I would be fine because I'm clean enough because of other herbicides and because we pay chopping crews to take weeds out."